Gary McNeill



Gary McNeill

"The R&A approached me before Christmas and asked me if I would do it and I jumped at the opportunity but as the week wore on, I wasn't sure if I had made the right decision"

Gary McNeill

While this year [2020] may have been cancelled due to COVID-19, having The Open back at Royal Portrush last year was an amazing experience for the local golf community. For Portrush’s long time head professional Gary McNeill, it was even more so.

Obviously, the club professional is heavily involved in many aspects in the lead up to the event, but what’s not quite as well known is that, should there be an odd number of qualifiers for the weekend, it’s the host club professional that gets the call up for a chance to play as a marker during the event.

Gary McNeill

Who is Gary McNeill?

During tournament week, it’s not unusual for the club professional at The Open to find competitors knocking on their door looking for some tips on how to play the course. The fact that Royal Portrush was an unknown quantity to many of the players made Gary’s insights all the more important.

Yet, whatever about imparting knowledge, the real question was; could he put all the knowledge built up over 20 years to good use when he got the call-up to play on Friday evening as a marker?

“Typically, it falls on the club professional to fill in when an odd number of players make the cut” said the 49-year-old. “The club pro can either do it himself or provide a playing marker. Ahead of The Open, I discussed things with the pro’s at the other Open venues. Those guys that played said it was an incredible experience.

“When I got the call on Friday evening from Clare at the R&A, she said ‘look, we are sitting on an odd number here. It looks like we will need you to play, are you still happy to do it?’. “She did give me the option to bail out at the eleventh hour.” In his defense, it was reasonable to have doubts.

Gary’s last competitive round before Saturday morning, July 20th at Portrush had been at The Open qualifier in Baltray on June 24th. In a field of 115, he finished tied for 88th, posting a six-over-par 78. Maybe not ideal for confidence-building but a rare chance to play competitively.

Unfortunately, it didn’t stop him struggling to get the club back when his name was called out on the first tee as friends and family in the grandstand roared their support. “It was terrifying to be honest,” Gary confessed, who was paired with Englishman Paul Waring. “It was a 9.30am start on Saturday and there was a heck of a lot of people already in place. “I hit the ball quite well when I went down for my warm-up. I felt OK on the first tee. As soon as I took the club back, it felt foreign.

It went low for a bit and left off the heel but after that, I drove the ball really well. I didn’t miss many fairways. “It was just great fun. There are so many people, so many of the members are out there, friends and people that we know. So, it was great. The reception was unbelievable. The players must have had a ball out there.”

After 68 years, the emotion of that week may never be replicated. And it was imply the luck of the draw that Gary was able to play amongst it. “To see it all come together and be part of it as well and be part of the Championship Committee here as well, it’s been truly amazing. “You spend three or four years of your life with The Open Championship sort of looming and you spend all this time preparing and getting ready. This Open was special. There’s been many like it but Portrush was a week like no other.” McNeill is right; and The Open will be back.

Paul Waring (Left) accompanies Gary McNeill during The Open

"The golf course impressed the players and everyone that was here. There was a real feel-good factor about this event. I'm sure the R&A will be looking to bring it back here before too long"

Gary McNeill

Article written by Paul Kelly – Irish Golfer

Related news